High Hopes for Clean Coal?

Coal provides 52 percent of America's electricity. Every year America's coal-fired power plants emit up to 2 billion tons of CO2. So a complex process to clean up coal -- by capturing and storing the CO2 -- is currently in development. But many obstacles lay ahead ...

Eric Pooley   Former managing editor, Fortune magazine


Where do both presidential candidates sit on the issue of clean coal?

Both John McCain and Barack Obama are staunchly in favor of R&D for clean coal technology. They both see a United States that gets 50 percent of its electricity from coal, and they don't think we can get to a solution unless we find a way to use much of that coal, but in a way that doesn't spew greenhouse gases into the into the atmosphere. So they're in favor of big time R&D, billions of dollars of R&D for the coal industry.

And they're not alone. If you talk to people like John Deutch at MIT or some of the leading folks who are studying this, very few of them think that you can get to where we need to go without having some kind of capture and storage of the CO2 from coal.

How realistic are the candidates in light of what's known about the difficulties of actually capturing and storing so much carbon dioxide?

I don't think we're having a real debate about the difficulties involved in capturing and storing carbon from coal-fired power plants. I think clean coal is a slogan. It's a slogan for the coal industry which wants people to think that coal is already clean when it's not. It's a slogan for candidates who don't want to scare away voters in coal states.

And so we're not really joining a real debate here. We're trading slogans. And I think we need to start talking about what it's really gonna take to get this done.

And what it's going to cost?

It's daunting. First of all, we do have technology that can capture the CO2 from coal plants. But there's something called a parasitic lode, where about half of the electricity produced by that plant -- in other words, half of the usable energy that plant produces -- is siphoned off into the capture process. So that drives up costs right there.

Then you've got the question of what to do with all of the CO2 that you've captured. And I've seen estimates that you would need to replicate the infrastructure of the entire U.S. petroleum industry in order to capture and store just a fraction of the CO2 from coal-fired plants.

So you're talking about a mammoth network of pipelines. You're talking about piping it and liquefying it, piping it and storing it underground. We have to figure out where those geologic sites are, whether or not they'll leak, who bears the risk from those sites, what the risks really are.

And, how do we indemnify people against those risks and how do you deal with the "Not in my backyard" problems of communities that don't want depositories of CO2 beneath their homes or out in the countryside near them? From what I've been able to gather, those risks are not onerous.

But they're scary?

They're scary because the unknown is scary.

Jeff Goodell   Author, Big Coal

Jeff GoodellRead his full interview >

...There's a lot of research going on about this to figure out a way to get [carbon dioxide] out of coal, to do this in a cheap and economical way. But as yet, there isn't anything, and the best thing that we have is using these coal gasification plants, which then can capture the carbon dioxide, use pressure to create a kind of supercritical fluid that has the viscosity of oil, and then pump it underground 2,000 or 3,000 feet into these deep saline aquifers. ...

So it sounds like a good solution. Why not do it?

It can be a good solution in certain places. ... The problem is that this is still quite a ways away.

There's only a few small-scale pilot projects going on around the world right now. There's many, many technological hurdles to overcome. We still don't know for sure that it can be locked away safely down there, how well it will stay. Underground geology at that depth is very complex.

Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant, so there's the problem of if the CO2 is buried 2,000 feet underground and there's some minor earthquake and it can leak up through a fissure and get into someone's basement, then you could be asphyxiated without knowing.

And it's odorless gas; there's no way to detect it. Is it actually staying there? Or is it just sort of bubbling out somewhere where we're not watching? So it requires incredibly complex [regulation] and oversight to make sure that this works well.

The other problem is that it doesn't work everywhere. Certain parts of the world and the United States, the geology is well suited to it. Wyoming, for example, the geology is well suited to it. Parts of Appalachia, it's well suited to it. But other parts -- New England, the Southeast -- it's not. So it's not a solution for those regions.

And then the last thing about it is the price. It gets expensive to do, depending on how it's done. And at a certain point, you have to ask, well, if [we're] going to go to all this expense, why not do a clean renewable power or something that is perhaps the same price or maybe a small percentage more expensive right now but vastly simpler and eliminates all of these technological problems?

Jeffrey Ball   The Wall Street Journal

Jeffrey BallRead his full interview >

Carbon capture and sequestration, that's the major bet that's being made. What's Wall Street's view on that?

Earlier this year [2008], three major Wall Street banks, Citi, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley came out with something pretty interesting that they called "The Carbon Principles." It fundamentally was a pronouncement that Wall Street is much less comfortable with conventional coal-fired technology than it has been. So this is a statement by the people who financed the construction of coal-fired electricity in this country.

In the absence of federal regulation at this point, they are going to start assuming federal regulation in their decisions about what they're going to finance, and that will make it much less likely that they will finance conventional coal-fired power. And that's sort of a shot heard round the world within the coal-fired power industry. …

The problem that Wall Street has is the same problem that coal-fired utilities have, which is they don't really know what the feds are going to do. ...

… What's your assessment on how realistic carbon capture and storage really is, as a solution?

… I think there's a reality check going on about carbon capture and storage right now. ... It's becoming clear to the people who are in the weeds on this … that assuring that you can bury CO2 underground and not have it pop up somewhere that you don't want it to pop up is a daunting proposition. And secondly, that assuring that you can capture the CO2 in the first place and inject it under ground at a cost that people are going to be able to afford is a tough proposition. …

Earlier this year, the federal government, the U.S. government effectively nixed a program called FutureGen, which was kind of the quintessential government moon shot program. The government was going to work with the coal-fired power industry to develop a clean coal plant. But the program was essentially stopped because the costs got too high.

I thought they just were re-jiggering the project.

Sure. ... But they're re-jiggering it pretty fundamentally. They've decided that they need to do more real-life projects, as opposed to sort of fundamental research in this area . And it raises new questions about when carbon capture and storage is going to work. …

It suggests an enormous, new infrastructure, just like ethanol does with cars, just like all of these technologies do. ...

Any estimates on how much that's going to cost?

I think that there are estimates. It's a mind-boggling number, whatever the number is. But again, this is the sort of reality check that people are undergoing.

Is carbon capture and sequestration, carbon capture and storage just the death throes of an industry trying to save itself. Or is it a real prospect?

It may be both. Look, the supporters of carbon capture and storage are not just utility CEOs. They're prominent environmentalists who have essentially staked their reputations on the possible viability of carbon capture and storage. It is the centerpiece of the environmental strategy for electricity, for not just the U.S. but Germany and multiple industrialized countries, China.

So if it goes up in smoke, there are a lot of people who are going to be hurting. … I think the consensus is that if this does not work, then it becomes really unclear how the world can, in an economically viable way, curb emissions at anything like the levels that scientists say are going to be necessary.

And when will we know?

Well, this is the problem, isn't it? ... The consensus seems to be that the world's not going to know until 15 or 20 years from now whether carbon capture and storage is viable. …

Joseph Romm   Author, Hell and High Water


...There are only two futures for the coal industry: Massive introduction of carbon capture and storage and burying the carbon in permanent repositories, or no use of coal. There's no third alternative.

I see all these ads on TV that are nonsense. The coal industry's been one of the driving forces behind inaction. They've been trying to live in the past as long as possible with this imaginary third option that they can keep building coal plants. From my perspective, they've been scrambling to build dirty power plants for years knowing that they're going to be seeing regulations. …

China is also living in a similar delusion that they should just build coal plants as fast as they can until someone stops them. Or, my guess is until someone pays them to stop doing it. It's going to require a lot of effort by a lot of industries, of which the coal industry and the automobile industry are the two most important. ...

Stephen Schneider   Climate scientist, Stanford University

Steve SchneiderRead his full interview >

... I was very, very frustrated when the U.S. went to [the December 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in] Bali, and said we're going to invent our way out of this problem; we're going to invent clean coal, and we're going to invest federal money in a power plant called FutureGen that was going to be carbon capture and sequestration.

As soon as they came home, the half-billion-dollar price tag was too high; they didn't want to spend it in a recession. No wonder we look like hypocrites. ... FutureGen was cancelled.

What we need is enlightened leadership where private sector and the public sector [can] make mutual investments so that everybody wins over time. And the private sector has a real opportunity to make money if they invent something really cool at [a] low price.

But we don't know yet about clean coal. ...

Clean coal is going to be a piece of the answer, I hope. If we don't invest in figuring it out, we'll never know. Cleaner, cheaper solar is going to be a piece of the answer, I hope. If we don't make the investments, we don't know. We've got to make the investments. ...

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John Warner   Co-sponsors, America's Climate Security Act of 2007

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John WarnerRead his full interview >

Sen. Lieberman: [T]he people who are running coal-powered electric plants and people in the coal business are not going to, on their own, change.

Change is difficult. It's not that the people running these companies are bad people. It's that they're running their business, making a profit, paying people an income who are working for them, based on the current way of doing business. And when we're coming along and saying, "Hey! You can't do this any more because you're creating a real crisis for the world in global warming. You got to figure out how to use this coal in a cleaner way."

And it will cost money. And that's why [in our legislation] we have this very generous, we think, system for investing in aggressive research and development and the use of coal clean including, of course, carbon capture and sequestration.

Sen. Warner:... Coal is trying hard. In the almost 30 years I've been in the Senate I have teamed up with other coal senators to put a lot of money in for clean coal research. That research has been going on. But frankly it has not produced the results either the industrial base or the rest of us had wanted. ...

Sen. Lieberman: I think the problem is still both technological and also political. In other words there's still some work to be done to get the technology of carbon capture and sequestration to a point where we could really rely on it. But then it will take political leadership.

And here again, if Congress, [the] president, set [a] national standard and say, "It's the law; you've got to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next four decades by this amount," people are going to figure out how to build these systems in a way that solves the problem, or at least makes the problem less. ...

But don't we have to be straight with the American public? If we're not paying more for our electricity and for our gasoline, then we're not paying for the carbon dioxide emissions ... and we're not making progress. So there's a cost to this.

Sen. Lieberman: There is a cost and there's no question about it. We think the cost is manageable and worth it. And we think the American people agree with it as a way to avoid the most disastrous consequences of global warming. ...

They're saying in the business world that they don't think before 2020 that [they] are going to even have the beginning of real commercial carbon capture.

Sen. Warner: Yeah, but you said earlier on, the technology for capturing carbon is known. The technology for putting it in the ground's known. It's up to the political system. Are you inferring that the political system is going to purposely delay this to 2030? I say no.

If it doesn't work, is there a future for coal?

Sen. Warner: Well, it's got to work.

Rep. Rick Boucher   Chairman, House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee (D-Va.)


You come from a district where coal is a major part of the economy. The coal and the utility companies are asked to capture and store the carbon. Can they do it?

Yes, they can. Perhaps not immediately. We are aggressively pursuing research and demonstration projects in bringing to wide availability, within the next 10 to 12 years, technologies that can separate the carbon dioxide from the coal combustion process, and then permanently store that carbon dioxide in the ground. But there is an interim period between now and the time when those technologies will be available, reliable and affordable to be used by our industry.

When will that be?

The estimates I've heard are between 2020 and 2025. And it's hard to be more precise. But it is coming. And then, that technology will become the way that electric utilities continue to generate electricity, using coal. Using other fuel sources. And I'm sure we'll have more nuclear energy. We'll have more renewable energy and use for electricity generation by that point in time.

Without carbon capture and storage, is the game over for coal?

Without that, it largely would be in a carbon-constrained environment. Then the costs of carbon abatement would probably make coal prohibitively expensive.

I talked to the CEO of Arch Coal. They're spending zero dollars, he says, on contributing to any carbon capture and storage R&D. Companies like AEP and Southern are spending some money, but not very much. Very small percentages of their profits are being turned around and ploughed into any kind of R&D for carbon capture and storage. So how are we going to get there?

The carbon capture technologies actually are being created by another segment of industry. General Electric has created integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), which allows for the removal of the carbon dioxide in a pre-combustion coal gasification process. Other companies have created two other means of carbon dioxide removal. One of those is a chilled ammonia process, which is a post-combustion process. The other is actually a combustion process which is oxygen-fired and you burn coal in an oxygen-rich environment. Pure stream of carbon dioxide comes off.

Those technologies are very close to market commercialization. What is going to take longer -- and what the government really has to have a role in funding -- is the storage technology.

Dan Kammen   University of California, Berkeley Institute of the Environment

Dan KammenRead his full interview >

...The problem is that, as we've done more and more research on carbon sequestration over the last few years, the price tag to sequester safely and reliably that carbon has been increasing. ...

Per ton of carbon, the price is looking about twice as high now as it was a couple of years ago to dispose of it. And we aren't quite clear on how we're going to do it at scale and how we're going transport the CO2, not only aboveground to the places where we'd bury it, but to then bury it geologically safely and monitor it. There are a whole range of barriers in place.

When I look at the technological and the financial hurdles facing the clean coal process and those facing nuclear, nuclear at least is an industry that exists today at large scale. It's a big chunk of our electricity generation.

Hoping that a technology in a sector that doesn't exist today, clean coal, will solve all these problems and be able to be a big player less than a decade out, is a real concern. ...

Rafe Pomerance   Founder and chairman, Climate Policy Center


Coal as it's currently burned is the worst actor, produces twice as much CO2 per BTU as natural gas. And the coal industry has to deal with the fact that it is a contributor to the massive warming of the earth.

We have to reduce our coal consumption or sequester the emissions from it to save the planet's climate. So indeed, coal production has to change, and maybe massively. What's the choice? Coal or the planet?

And is that the choice?

No, not completely, because you've got to worry about oil and natural gas as well as well as deforestation and other greenhouse gases. But we have to make this change over time to reduce really almost to zero the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere. And if that means that we change the way we use coal and how much we use, so be it.

And what is the economy going to look like then with almost no CO2?

Well we're talking about a transformation of the economy. You're looking at a world with completely new technology where renewables play a much bigger role. Nuclear power plays a bigger role. Carbon sequestration plays a bigger role. And a whole bunch of technologies we can't even imagine right now. It's a future that has to be imagined in part.

Part of what we're not doing in this country is investing enough in R&D to produce transformational technology. We have some good programs, but what we need is an effort that matches the scale and timing of the problem. You have to ramp this up to get there in time before things get out of hand.

posted october 21, 2008

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